Several lawmakers on Tuesday (March 14) took time away from the State Capitol to attend a luncheon hosted by the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association (AAEA) that highlighted the economic benefits the state is seeing from growth in renewable energy investments and better efficiencies from new industry technologies.
“AAEA members are creating jobs and spurring economic development in communities across Arkansas by manufacturing, installing or utilizing a wide range of advanced energy technologies,” said AAEA Executive Director Katie Niebaum, a Little Rock native. “Today, the advanced energy economy in Arkansas includes more than 770 companies and a workforce of 25,000 people.”
Niebaum made her comments at the AAEA’s third “Advanced Energy Day at the Legislature,” which featured an exhibition by advanced energy companies in the Capitol Rotunda throughout the day. The AAEA’s schedule of activities also included a luncheon with lawmakers, state policymakers, business executives and renewable energy advocates at Capitol Hill building, and an official proclamation by Gov. Asa Hutchinson designating the day as “Arkansas Advanced Energy Day.”
During the luncheon, Niebaum said the advanced energy companies across the state have strong growth over the past several years but needed to better promote the industry. In October, Niebaum was appointed to take over as executive director of the AAEA and its educational affiliate Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation (AAEF) after longtime director and founder Steve Patterson stepped down.
“This is an important visibility opportunity for our industry. If we don’t tell our story, who will? There really is no substitute for showing up,” said Niebaum, a former vice price president of communications for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C.
As Niebaum introduced more than a dozen lawmakers who attended the luncheon, she also told association members gathered at the State Capitol grounds that they should reach out to their representatives about issues important to them. AAEA recently introduced House Bill 2026 or the Property Assessed Clean Energy Act (PACE), sponsored by Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, which would update a 2013 law that helps business and property owners access financing for energy efficiency, water efficiency and renewable energy improvements.
“We want you to talk to your legislator about the impact that policy makes on your success,” Niebaum said.
After the AAEA director’s brief speech, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Director Becky Keogh talked about the Gov. Hutchinson’s recently signed legislative package on government efficiencies that moved the state Energy Office and staff into ADEQ. Keogh said integration of the Energy Office into ADEQ is going well and would be further aided by the impending $14.6 million settlement Arkansas will receive as part of a federal settlement with Volkswagen for alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act concerning the sale of vehicles equipped with emissions control defeat devices.
The ADEQ director said Arkansas is poised to receive its first payment from the federal consent decree, which will go toward projects that reduce emissions from Arkansas cars. Keogh said the settlement funds will provide an additional opportunity for Arkansas to realize further improvement in air quality with respect to nitrogen oxides ozone, and fine particulate matter. The ADEQ director said the funding can be leveraged to help state and local agencies, schools, and organizations replace aging high-emitting vehicles and equipment with newer, cleaner vehicles and equipment.
“We will receive funding that will be allocated to the state through a trustee that has just been nominated, but not yet confirmed by the court,” she said. “We are waiting on that before we can actually submit plans to the court. We will be going through a process on how that money could be utilized in Arkansas. … Everybody’s got their hands out for that money. But there is a lot of strings on that money, and the court is very careful how that settlement can be used.”
After Keogh spoke, Heather Nelson, co-founder of Seal Team Solutions of North Little Rock, gave an upbeat talk about the exciting growth in her company has seen in the energy solutions industry over the past few years. Seal provides energy assessments and retrofits for solar, HVAC, lighting, compressed air, combustion safety and air quality for residential, commercial and industrial clients.
“Our company and our business is about business and politics and merging of those two beautiful things,” said Nelson, whose title is Chief Dream Engineer. “These are exciting days for energy efficiency and renewables. I have chill bumps when I talk about our company and our industry, no matter what space I am in.”
Nelson also echoed Niebaum’s comments that the advanced energy industry is starting to gain traction in Arkansas, highlighted by the fact that numerous bills have been filed in the 2017 legislative session that will impact the fast-growing energy industry sector.
“In the last week alone, squeals came through our office because key decisions, legislations and bills were introduced that impacted – in both positive and negative ways – our industry,” Nelson said. “I can remember a few years ago when we didn’t really have anything in front of the legislature. The fact that people are talking about our industry is a very powerful thing.”
Nelson said in less than five years, Seal has grown from a small startup with three employees to a fast-growing energy solutions firm with three offices in Arkansas and Mississippi, 47 workers and plans to hire several more in 2017.
After Nelson, Reps. Sabin, David Hillman, R-Alymra, and Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, also talked about legislative efforts to promote energy efficiency and the development of new technologies in the energy sector. Sabin’s HB2016 has been referred to the Joint Energy Committee, but is not on calendar this week for consideration.